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Monday, May 25, 2009

Helping Hands

Over the past week, we have had an opportunity to see more of Pisco and its surrounding area. We have shopped in the market and eaten at local restaurants, we have visited and worked in outlying communities. We have tried to digest the startling pauverty here and have sat in the central plaza taking in the gaping space next to the town hall building where a cathedral once stood, having crumbled during the earthquake killing over one hundred inside.

On Tuesday thru Thursday, we worked in a bamboo-home community, rebuilding a bamboo structure more suitable to accommodate the family of five living inside. These communities are what we, unfortunately, would perceive as `shanty-towns`, erected in the dessert to house the masses of displaced people following the earthquake. The homes are typically bamboo posts, crushed bamboo walls, lined with plastic and crushed bamboo ceilings/roofs as well. These homes don’t have plumbing per say and the bathroom is often a bucket in the corner of the house. In some communities however, public toilet blocks have been built (PSF has also helped to build some of these).

Friday, we worked on a project building a fence at a school, while Saturday we attended a fundraiser in a small community of 88 families, located within a greater community (about 1,000 families) called El Molino. This community moved to their dessert location when their seaside neighborhood was wiped out during the earthquake/tsunami. They families of El Molino have banded together and have organized themselves to create some positive change in their community. PSF has been working with them to help them realize some of their needs. The local ladies cooked for us and the money raised was to support their efforts in raising funds for a medical aid station and a day care. As they are a good distance from decent health care, they would like the ability to treat minor accidents and other basic needs in a small aid station and, while work is scarce, there is no-one to look after their children when they do find opportunities. To generate income, some may clean fish at the docks at 3 or 4 am, some sell vegetabls in the market, some collect plastic bottles for the recycling refunds and some scavenge scrap metal from the rubble piles to sell by weight.

A woman, Mary, explained to us how PSF is the first group of people who has ever taken an interest in helping them and that they are eternally grateful. She explained how hard the life is there and though they seem to be fine with their shanty homes, it is not easy to live in such conditions. She delivered an emotional address that I think made us all think about the work we were doing. After spending an afternoon in El Molino and after reflecting back on our first week of work in Pisco, we are certain we made the right decision to stay an extra week to help where we can.

It was great to see a community such as this one that has pulled together so strongly to help each other and work together. It seemed like a strong environment for change and I found it inspiring to see such strength in what appears to be such desperate times.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Me and Mario

I spent most of the day today with a lovely man named Mario. The concrete pour site we were working on belonged to one of his friends. Exterior walls had been constructed out of bricks and this house was the only one of its kind on the dusty road we found ourselves on. The others houses, sparcely scattered in the area, having been built with the more common alternative, bamboo. We were pouring footings for the interior walls.

Mario told me that though bamboo is far less expensive, money was borrowed from the bank to construct this more permanent structure. I hesitate to use the word ´permanent´however as there is nothing temporary about the bamboo homes here. These are not homes waiting to be upgraded, these are homes.

Today, together, Mario and I supplied water to the construction site from two 1.5m deep wells. He would draw the water from the well and fill my bucket and I would carry it to the site. Upon my return to the well, we would chat and I would try to understand the stories he was telling me. He didn´t speak a word of english and though my spanish has improved, his lack of teeth and the speed at which he spoke meant that I missed more than a few bits. A smile and a nod though, encouraged him to keep sharing more with me each time I returned. In addition to the more important things I understood, I also learned that he loves to salsa dance and enjoys Gloria Estefan and Micheal Jackson, though Micheal Jackson is a bit crazy in the head...

Mario´s home was destroyed by the earthquake along with everything in it. The piles and piles of rubble that fill the fields lining the roadsides are evidence of many buildings that crumbled that day. Pisco is still Mario´s favorite place and he wouldn´t want to live anywhere else.

From the two-room bamboo home that a volunteer group helped Mario rebuild, he travels the globe, he told me, through his books. Though he has never seen outside of Peru, he would be particularly interested in visiting USA, Canada, or Alaska if given the chance. Or maybe Cuba too. His eyes lit up when he fantasized of taking a cruise one day. Mario held particular interest in the story of the Titanic and when he first read of it, he thought it was a make-believe story. He shared this with me, almost asking me to confirm that, in fact, it had actually happened.

Mario kept me entertained today and though I tried to understand stories that I´m pretty sure included things about Europe, the fishing industry, the way things used to be in Pisco and I couldn´t tell you what else I missed, my language skills failed me. I did however catch the parts where Mario kept reminding me how strong I was and wanted to make sure that I was returning the following day. He told me that drawing the bucket from the well was really hurting his back but when I asked him if he wanted to switch jobs for a while, he told me there was no time to worry, there was work to be done. Just a sweet old man.

Today, Mario and I spent part of the day learning about each other, part of the day in silence, and the whole day united by a common goal, helping a friend build a home :).

Pulling our weight in Pisco

We arrived in Pisco on Sunday morning to volunteer with a non-profit organization called Pisco Sin Fronteras (PSF). Pisco Sin Fronteras (Pisco without borders) started in August 2008 on the first year anniversary of the massive earthquake which devastated the city, destroying 80% of homes and killing around 600 people. Volunteers here are helping to build houses, schools, sanitation units and helping with other community-based projects. It’s been almost two years since the disaster and there are still a huge amount of people without adequate housing and sanitation.

The director, Harold (only 24 years old!) is from Pisco, born and raised, and is passionate about PSF and helping his local community to rebuild. In addition to providing a labour force, by way of volunteers, to help with construction projects, PSF also provides tools that people may not readily have, like a concrete mixer and power saw for example.

The organization´s plea for volunteers includes the following "we need hard working volunteers who come with patience, enthusiasm, an open mind, flexibility and the willingness to get stuck in and get their hands dirty".

Looking forward to getting our hands dirty in Pisco.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bicycles and Bathtub toes in the Andes

We met up with Julio (our ride guide and owner of the only quality full suspension mountain bikes in Huaraz, we were told) at 9:30am on Friday morning. It was a beautiful day and we were ready to see what the Andes had to offer. The plan was to head up into the hills on the Cordillera Blanca side in a taxi (yes, the taxis here have bike roof racks for just such scenarios) and make our way back to Huaraz.

To our surprise there were two other English girls at Julio's shop ready to take to the mountains when we arrived. The more the merrier, right? Right. However, I could see Troy's face take an ugly turn when Julio asked the girls about their experience and then changed over the front and rear brake for them to conform to the way they are in England. The girls responded that they were used to riding on pavement on flat ground and what do you mean there's a front and rear brake, don't you just use them both at the same time?? Uh oh.

At this point, luckily Julio also thought it best to split up the group. We proceeded into the mountains with Julio and he sent his bike mechanic with the ladies. Crisis averted :).

We rode for about an hour in the taxi and when we unloaded and waved him off, we took in our surroundings at 4,000m, beautiful! Julio was great, as he apparently pioneered the mountain biking game in Huaraz and knows all the best places to ride. We were treated to a combination of trails - downhill, single track, cross country and everything in between.

After the success of Friday's ride, we decided to go again on Saturday. Only this time on the Cordillera Negra side. We were once again accompanied by Julio and while this ride was a little more tranquilo, the view looking across to the Cordillera Blanca from 4,000m was incredible, at one point being able to see all the way from one end to the other including Huascaran, Peru's highest peak at about 6700m..

It was the perfect ride to do as a prelude to a three day trek which we had planned to start the following morning, just the right amount of 'hard', not so much that I wouldn't be able to get out of bed the next day and not so little that Troy would be bored. Thanks Julio!
After considering our options, we decided to do the Santa Cruz Trek (the second most popular trek in Peru after the Inca trail) unassisted. The highlight of the Santa Cruz Trek is the Punta Union pass (4,750m) promising one of the most spectacular views in the Andes. We had briefly considered joining a tour group as we didn't have any of our own equipment. We ruled this out because the cost seemed silly and besides the groups take four days and based on a book I had read in our hostal looby, we were confident that "fit, experienced trekkers may finish in three"... We then briefly considered 'hiring' a donkey, because seriously how cool would it be to take your own donkey into the Andes? But apparently you can't just take the donkey, you have to take his 'driver' too. This was ruled out.

We rented some sleeping bags, a tent, a stove, and some trekking poles, and with no guidebook to speak of and only a cartoon-style map in hand, we set out on our adventure. We were assured that this was a popular trek, well signed, and we would see many groups on the trail if ever we were in doubt of which way to go.

After taking a collectivo (basically a minibus jam packed with people) for about four and a half hours up the switchbacks into the mountains, we arrived at the starting point of our trek, the tiny town (three buildings) of Vaqueria. Our bags were thrown off the bus and we were pointed in the direction of a donkey tied to a sign on the side of the road and an old man sitting on a stump. After he offered to carry our packs on his donkey and a young woman collected five soles from us ($1.65) to contribute to campsite maintenance, we felt relatively sure we were in the right place. The first of many PB & J sandwhiches to come was consumed and we set out from an altitude of 3,700m.

The first day was mostly uphill, albeit relatively gradual, and we wound our way past small pockets of houses, and local people more than happy to offer a smile and point our way up the trail.

We arrived about three hours later at the first campsite opposite Quebrada Paria (3850m). The view was incredible and having found the place deserted, we celebrated our first day success and picked out just the right spot for our tent (to get the best picture ofcourse). We chefed up a hardy meal of rice and veg, rehydrated with crystal clear glacier water (purified ofcourse) and called it a night.

We got an early start the second morning, which proved to be a good idea about two hours in when we found ourselves in the middle of a swamp, clearly off-course wondering where all the signs and people and tour groups we were supposed to be able to follow were?? We did some backtracking, found our way, and eventually laughed alot. The first person we saw on our journey was another lowly traveler on his way to making the same mistake we had made. It made us feel better that we weren't the only ones to have been confused and he seemed pleased to have been spared our swamping ordeal.

With wet feet, and two extra hours of hiking under our belts, the experience was now truly our own!

As we neared the pass, we met up with two drivers and their mules, the only other people we had seen on the trail thus far. The driver going our way stopped short of the pass however, advising that it was going to rain early today so he was packing it in to set up camp. We, ofcourse, pressed on.

Reaching the pass was nothing short of amazing. And although, as we all know, I am not the emotional Farn, I was surprised at my reaction and literally found myself almost choked up...only almost. Just so happy :). It was beautiful and though the climb was challenging and my body was tired (let's not forget the wet feet and the extra two hours of wandering...), the view was definately worth it and ofcourse photos will not do it justice. The donkey driver may have been on to something as it started to flurry about this time...

From here we began the descent and reached the next camp in time to set up, cook dinner, and enjoy a cup of tea before the rain really started coming down.

Again, we got an early start the following morning and followed the Santa Cruz Valley to the town of Cashapampa, the finishing point. We found a great lunch spot where we could enjoy the sunshine and look back towards the pass and on the path we had traveled. Unfortunately the path we had traveled that day also included a marshy swamp that, sans guide, we didn't know how to avoid and so two hours into our six and a half hour hike, we once again had wet feet. By the time we got back to our hostal in Huaraz, our toes and feet were so white and wrinkly that they looked as though they had been soaking in a bathtub all day...

However, with bathtub toes and all, we give the Santa Cruz Trek a glowing recommendation and can't wait to do more backpacking upon our return home to the great Canadian Rockies :)!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Towns that begin with the letter 'H'

We took an overnight bus from Mancora to Trujillo on Tuesday night and arrived about 7:30am Wednesday morning. The next bus to Huaraz wasn't until Wednesday at 9pm so we had some time to kill. We had been advised to spend it at the nearby beach town of Haunchaco instead of in the City of Trujillo and so we checked our baggage at the bus depot and headed out to Huanchaco by taxi.
Huanchaco is a beach town operating mostly on tourism and fishing if I had to guess. The waves in the open water were the biggest I have ever seen. Rolling in one after the other with ridiculous force and power! Even the smaller waves, in what i would call the surfing area for the semi-sane people, were massive in comparison to Mancora and the water was wetsuit-cold. However, neither of these factors were enough to deter Troy from renting a surfboard and a wetsuit and heading out into the ocean. The sea was angry that day my friends...but Troy put up a valiant effort!
We headed back into Trujillo at about 8pm and made it in plenty of time for the bus but just barely alive after riding with a maniac taxi driver. I seriously considered asking to be let out on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

We arrived in Huaraz at about 7am this morning (Thursday) and spent the day getting our bearings in this new City and resting up since we are now back at altitude and spent a sleepless night on the bus. Exploring a town and getting my bearings and the feel of a place is one of my favorite things to do upon arriving in a new location. We found the important things first, grocery store, fresh food market, and mountain bike shop.

The only thing more traumatizing to Troy in the fresh food market than the whole guinea pigs sliced open and displayed on their backs in all their hairless glory were the fuzzy little guinea pigs, eyes open and alert, sharing a potato sack with 8 of their buddies. We almost acquired pet guinea pigs. I had to explain to Troy that we couldn't save them all.

It is great to once again be surrounded by mountains and snowy peaks. Three mountain ranges surround Huaraz, the Cordillera Blanca, the Cordillera Negro, and the Cordillera Huayhuash. The first day feeling of this new place is that it's a keeper.

Holy Hammocks Batman!

We ended up spending nine sunny (aka 'scorching hot' if you ask Troy) days in the small surfing/fishing town of Mancora Peru. We were eager to test out our surfing skills and the four of us each took a surfing lesson bright and early on our first morning. We spent about two minutes on the beach stretching, practiced jumping up from our bellies to our feet about once and then it was into the water! Yep, it was just the way we like it, none of this 'classroom' stuff, on to the 'practical'! Sink or swim...or SURF!!

And surf we did :). As long as standing up on the board, long enough to wonder if you look like a surfer yet, counts. It was a blast so we ofcourse decided to repeat the routine the following morning. Us gals were to take another lesson and Josh and Troy would take a shot at doing their own thing on rental boards. To our disappointment, the waves weren't great the next morning and the tide was low so after sustaining my very own 'surfer injuries' which included scraped up toes, fingers, and arms from the rocks, we hung up our surfboards for the day.

The next seven days are a blur of activity in slow motion. Tanis and I shopped the strip, testing our bargaining skills (the best tactic seemed to be Tanis pleading language ignorance and just handing them what she thought the item was worth), Josh and Troy did a lot of reading (codeword for napping) in hammocks...

...we surfed, we sunned, Tanis and I baked yummy treats (I know, who knew?) in exchange for the boys playing games with us, and the boys chefed up fabulous meals in exchange for us tolerating their hammock obssession.
Tanis and I took one additional surfing lesson and even rented our own boards one afternoon to test our skills. Very fun. We looked something like this, only in the water :)
Feeling quite successful at surfing, we decided that we should take it easy and that boogie boarding might be fun to try. We were wrong. It was a comedy of errors from the get-go as we strapped the leashes to our ankles (only to find out later they belong on your arms) and headed out into the waves. It only took one good wave to rocket us both back onto the beach flayling as we attempted to stand up and walk in our flippers... After having provided entertainment for the people on the beach, we decided to retire back to sunning and swimming.

The boys on the other hand, were quite dedicated to mastering the surfing thing and would get up early in the mornings to give it a go (both to catch the best waves and also to get some practice time in when few other people were in the water, safer for everyone that way).

While it was difficult to get any good 'action' photos so-to-speak, they did look awful cute trying and experienced more than a few successes by the end of the week!

Thanks Josh and Tanis for all the fun!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

catching up

I enjoyed the slower pace spent in Mancora this past week and was able to do some catching up including going through some photos and realizing all the things I wanted to remember but that I had never written down. The following is a collection of some of these thoughts. It is incredibly long. I got carried away.

Looking back at Ecuador...

Though it seemed daunting at first, I came to look forward to the walk up the hill to school each day, though it never seemed to get any easier like I thought it should. (It reminded me of when I decided to take the stairs up to the fourth floor Bunt office for a year, that never got easier either).

Though such a trivial event, the walk before and after school provided, in addition to the following highlights, an opportunity to reflect on days past and plan for the days ahead…

Clear mornings, with the clouds high above both Volcan Imbabura and Volcan Cotocachi, were a special treat providing great views from the school yard which, in a strange way, seemed to bring such a positive energy to start the day…..

The ‘flower girls’, as we came to call them, would meet us each morning heading down the hill as we were going up and heading up the hill each afternoon as we were coming down, and though they were very shy, would always giggle and be excited to shake our hands, ask us our names, and hand us big, bridesmaid caliber bouquets of flowers they had collected…

The woman plowing the steep hillside, breaking new ground for a crop with nothing but a hoe, wearing her skirt and of course her rubber boots (often chatting with a man sitting nearby, watching) inspired us and I think reminded us to push ourselves a little faster…

These two trusty mules, patiently waiting to be collected by their owners at the end of the day, would greet us at the bus stop at the bottom of the hill every afternoon…

The only thing I won’t miss about the walk is the dead animal sightings. The most horrific being a donkey...being eaten by a dog. Don’t worry, no photo.
The volunteers I had the pleasure of working with at Larcacunga were dedicated to the project, to working hard, and most of all dedicated to having fun! The number of volunteers at Larcacunga varied throughout my time there. We were four when I started, peaked at about 9 somewhere in the middle, and were down to being only myself and one other (Eryn) by the time I left. Eryn was the only one there for the duration of my entire stay, having arrived a few weeks before me and having left one week after. I will sure miss her!

The volunteers specific to each of the four schools all seemed to bond well and at one point, we instituted a Larcacunga dress code… Note the matching scarves below :). Yeah, that’s right, all women. Troy’s school was the only school with male volunteers during our stay, and you guessed it, they did not have cool matching scarves… When our Larcacunga numbers were many, the weekly Tuesday ride in the back of the pickup truck with the groceries was…cozy. On pickup truck days, the kids would wait to hear the truck come roaring towards the school yard and then from out of nowhere would jump on the back for a ride. Always nice to be greeted with such style!

The kids actually really loved to jump on any moving vehicle with something they could grab on to, the gas truck, the bakery truck, the garbage truck... It always scared the crap out of me when they would go running down the hill behind a truck to try to jump on as it left the yard. I often had to stop myself from shouting out any warnings or cautionary words, as the teachers themselves didn‘t seem to mind.

Because some of the things that seem perfectly acceptable here would not be allowed at home, I came to question everything before acting on an impulse. For example, one day I came to school to find the kids had started a small fire in one corner of the school yard. It was a cool morning so although my initial reaction was that fires and small children are a bad combination, I actually considered the possibility that this was allowed and even consulted the teacher before learning that, in fact, it was not. Chasing cars, yes. Starting fires, no. Got it.

The kids were kids though, often doing things I would have done as a kid, like eating kool-aid type juice crystals until their palms and tongues turned red…..

…like swinging in the playground…

…or just kicking around a soccer ball (much to their delight we brought them this shiny new one on my last day). And then they would turn around and surprise me with things I never would have done, like collecting giant bugs to allegedly take home and fry up for a snack… Boys will be boys though and there was a phase where they brought these giant bugs to school every day. I don’t know what they were called but their feet were like velcro so when they weren’t pretending to eat them raw, they were sticking them to our clothes. Squealing only encouraged them so I actually grew to accept the little velcro buggers as long as they just clung to me and didn’t try to move… The novelty of squealing volunteers would eventually wear off and their limbs and wings would be removed (the bugs’ not the volunteers’) and they would be deposited into backpacks to be fried up and consumed after school.

Though I can’t attest to the flavor of the bugs, I did get to enjoy another yummy favorite, Fanesca! The preparation of this traditional easter meal was a joint effort prepared at the school. Each family contributed. From eggs and beans, to potatoes and milk and everything in between that went into this delicious soup. Everyone had something to share.

Fanesca is basically a big soup with twelve grains, one to represent each disciple. What a feast it was. Everyone got their hands in the pot, literally. From shucking beans and removing curnels of corn from the cob, to frying bread balls and keeping watch over the giant pot.

It was truly a group effort. Definitely the hardiest of all meals I consumed in Ecuador, I never knew ‘soup’ could be so filling. And while I couldn’t have imagined eating another bite, even the littlest tummies went back for seconds. Enjoying the fruits of their labour to the fullest :). As teachers, our creativity was tested daily as we strived to come up with activities to entertain. Physical activities ranging from the lime and spoon race to the now famed ‘chair game’ were a big hit.

While crafts including people art, bracelet beading and paper mache masks tested their craftiness.

And crafty they were, at both the expected and the unexpected. When the intern (aka me) locked the keys inside the school on a no-teacher day, we found ourselves in a bit of a pickle. But not for long as the resourceful little minds needed only a chair, a broom, and a flexible child to, well, break in. It was sad to say goodbye to these kids and it was a strange feeling to acknowledge that I had spent so much time in a place to which I will sadly not likely return. I really enjoyed the time spent at Larcacunga as it was both positive and challenging. It won’t soon be forgotten.

Outside the classroom, over and above our mountain climbing trips, our weekends in Ecuador afforded us the opportunity for various other side trips. There was the trip to Mindo for tubing and zip-lining in the cloud forest canopy….. …horseback riding to a waterfall on these trusty steeds…

…and I learned all about SATs, american colleges, and boys from these freshmen-to-be, Eryn and Katie, while hiking the five hours around Cuicocha Lake (this, incidentally, was the day before the Imbabura saga).

These gals were great stand-ins for my sisters for a little while (It was fun to be the big sister for a change) and they even humored me and my need to take charlie’s angels photos at almost every opportunity. Except they made me be in the front. I hate being in the front.

I leave you with one last photo as it seems a fitting photo to signify ‘THE END’ of our adventures in Ecuador :).